Tales from My Grandma’s Table

Grandma in her pumpkin apron

No one used my grandmother’s front door.  Everyone, friends and family, whether they were black or white, entered through the side door.  The front door worked just fine.  It was right there with a rickety screen and four brick steps which led to the top.  I didn’t know why it was never used.  I always walked through the side door.  Questions about front door usage were above my pay grade.  I was just grateful to be in the house. If required, I would have climbed through a window to get to her kitchen table. Her food was that good.

Grandma kept a towel at the bottom of the front door.  If she or anybody had decided to open the door (from the inside) someone would have to move that towel. No preacher, principal, or vacuum cleaner salesman ever came to that door.  The towel, on occasion, was changed.  Moisture and the occasional accumulation of dog hair mandated laundering the towel.  I suspected, that on towel change day, the might be cracked and the whole are might be cleaned.  If this happened, it occurred while I was at school.

When school was out and dinner had yet to be cooked, I’d show up by the side door in search of food, a place to do homework, and space to reflect on the day I’d finished.  Those three things:  food, a place to study, and somewhere to reflect on my life would all occur in a single spot opposite the side door. The door was only a narrow boundary between where I was going and where I needed to be.  Once the door was open, the distance between the door frame and the kitchen was a little less than a single arm length.  You went straight from the door and doorway (the world) to sitting at the table.  There was nowhere else to go.

Once inside you were already at the table.  The table had always been present.  I couldn’t remember a time when the table wasn’t there; prepared to some degree, ready to receive me (and others).  It wasn’t an antique table.  It was her table.  It functioned as designed.  You could mess it up, stain it with gravy, and spill most anything across its faux grain.  No disaster was permanent.  Like grandma, her table worked all day, every day.  Like God, she worked with whatever was brought to the table.

The table was there, cleared and waiting for your English book and Algebra homework.  Across the kitchen were two windows above the sink, looking at you stare back at them.  On the stove, dinner was cooking.  It was the meal that would feed you, your parents, aunts, uncles, and who ever showed up and needed to eat.  “Surely,” you said, “Grandma, some of that cornbread and those Lima beans need to be tested?”  Lunch time for middle school students was unbelievably early back in the dark ages of the mid- 1980s.

You know the kind of corn bread I’m talking about?  Corn bread so hot, made in an antique cast iron frying pan, that when you eat it, you are willing to forgo any idea of dessert if you can have more cornbread.  Pinto beans so fragrant with the aroma of ham, you’re willing eat bean after bean with no thought of the havoc it will wreak on your family later that night.  My perspective was focused on the immediate.  I was hungry and everything smelled good.  School smelled like the nursing home where my granddaddy died.  Grandma’s house smelled like life; were it made from raw ingredients and McCormick seasonings.  I wasn’t interested in waiting until mom and dad got off work or the rest of the family arrived. I was ready eat my fill, taste God’s goodness, and offer my review of what others had yet to taste.  “I don’t know what y’all going to eat but that cornbread was good.”  Don’t worry, she wouldn’t have let me eat it all.  We both knew better.

The Psalms are lived acts of praise.  Any hymn, for that matter, isn’t theology in a bubble.  Good hymns and God derived poetry are rooted in lived experience.  Mysticism might be a factor or the poet could simply relate the emotions he or she feels at the time when God feels closest to their lives.  In either case, they are active, poetic responses, to what God has done, is doing, and will do. Nothing about the Psalms is static.  They, like my grandmother’s table are always ready to respond in love.  There are stories to tell about the past, meals to serve in the present and surface acts as a place to plan the future.  My grandma was a seamstress by trade.  During the day, between meals, she was making cutting patterns for clothes.  Homecoming and prom gowns were designed on this table.  Wedding dresses were altered on this table.  Futures became reality on the table by the door in my grandmother’s house.  The table was sacred place where past, present, and future came together.  That’s what a good Psalm does. Often that means slowing down and seeing the bigger picture.  Grandma’s table is as good a place as any to stop.  Psalms, whether your turn to them or they turn you to them, come one way or another.  Psalms cause you to look beyond the chronological reality of the moment and think about life on God’s time.  To do that, sometimes you need a peanut butter and cracker and a glass of iced tea.  Remember what they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

The last four verses of Psalm 90 remind me of the many tales surrounding my grandma’s table.  Verse 17 begins, “Fill us full every morning with your faithful love so we can rejoice and celebrate our whole life long.  Let your acts be seen by your servants; let your glory be seen by their children.  Let the kindness of the Lord our God be over us.  Make the work of our hands last.  Make the work of our hands last!”

Grandma’s table and our common stories echo the Psalmists plea to God.  The writer asks to be filled each day with God’s faithful love so that throughout their life, he or she might rejoice and celebrate.  Jesus brought his disciples to a simple table where the stories of God’s love would be transformed into action.  That’s what important here.  What occurs at the table leads to action; both immediate and long term.

I have no memory of my grandmother being unhappy or sad.  I do remember her in countless of moments of rejoicing and celebration.  Like those strong Hebrew words forming a foundation for the table I’m calling Psalm 90 (come, quick, fill, make), grandma’s table was there every day, in the same place, as soon as you walked in the door, so that people might have place to share a story, rejoice in God’s goodness, and then transform goodness into action.  The table was the Psalm and the Psalm was the table. Grandma’s love, memorized recipes, instinctual decisions on the use of spices, and loving kindness toward others filled each person who shared that table with a joy that was seen by generations.  Her actions were observable. Now, as the Psalmist asks, “make the work of our hands last”.

The loving kindness, spit balling the amount flour in the biscuits, and spicing the beans is now up to us.  The lasting impact of her faithfulness and the tales told around her table are in my hands.  Beginning the day with faithful love so others will see God’s acts and glory as a reflection of my celebration and joy now rests with the hospitality and loving kindness I show.  Sure coffee, sweet tea, and egg sandwiches are important.  However, without loving kindness you’ve missed the boat.  Loving kindness is what makes our relationship with God different from any other religion in the history of civilization.

Psalm 90 has become my story.  The table is mine.  It’s a different table but it is still hers.  It’s in the parsonage on Howard Street but it is still hers.  Psalm 90 goes on, as it says, in the first verse, from generation to generation.

Is my table ready?  Am I prepared for who’s coming in at any time of day or night?  Am I ready to listen, cook, serve, and do these things with a Psalm infused joy which reflects the active presence of God in the world?  If not, I’m not living a Psalm 90 life .  If not, I’m just mouthing the words.  If not, I’m  not telling tales from grandma’s kitchen.  I’m recycling lies.  She’d have my behind for that.

Richard Lowell Bryant